Shifu with his Western disciples after the ceremony to take the Bodhisattva Precepts in 1997, in which the author also participated. Image courtesy of the author
I was introduced to the Chan Meditation Center in New York in 1997, when I came to work as a volunteer for almost a month. I arrived in the late afternoon just before the evening service had ended. When the door opened, I saw Master Sheng Yen (later, I called him shifu) walk into the reception area. We met each other face to face and he seemed to know that I was coming. I put down my luggage and stood before him. Without knowing any Buddhist etiquette, I simply nodded my head with smile, no prostration or bow, nor even joined palms. He looked at me kindly and told me in an encouraging tone, “You need to develop a good affinity with more people.” He then invited me to join them for supper.
I was very fortunate to have a chance to experience monastic life for the first time in this small, three-story building in New York City. One of the highlights in that month (and on each of my subsequent visits) was during the meal times. I was very lucky to sit close to Shifu. He usually finished eating before the rest of us, and he would then start sharing stories. One day, he told us a story about when he was a young monk in China. During a meal, the old master suddenly banged the dining table. The sudden sound shocked everyone and they all looked up to see what happened. In embarrassment, the old master used his fingers to pick a sesame seed from the table and said that the grain had been stuck in a small crack on the table. That old master then ate the sesame seed. Shifu explained that the old master had banged on the table so that the sesame would jump out of the crack. We initially laughed at the story, but in seconds we realized that many sesame seeds had fallen on our own table from the Chinese biscuits we were eating. We quietly searched the table, picking them all up and eating them. I appreciated this kind of teaching very much!
The second highlight was taking the Bodhisattva Precepts. Even though I had read through the liturgy many, many times beforehand, I teared up with emotion frequently during the ceremony. In one of Shifu’s Dharma talks, he explained how important it is for a Chan practitioner to take the Bodhisattva vows. Using a lighter as an analogy, he explained that if our true body (本體 self nature) is represented by the lighter, then the Bodhisattva vows are the action of ignition, and the flame generated is the function of the mind that brings light and warmth to others. We need to ignite the flame (help others) again and again and again until one day, when the light is shining back on ourselves (迴光返照), we have a chance to see our own true body (self nature). This echoed what Shifu had told me when we first met: “You need to develop a good affinity with more people.” Yet back to reality, I began see why Shifu had said those words—because I was far from the vows I had taken; not even close.
Shifu in front of the Chan Meditation Center. Image courtesy of the author
Since that year, I have managed to come to New York for retreats twice each year. Due to my flexible schedule at school, I have been able to arrive a few days earlier and to leave a few days later, allowing me to spend more time at the center doing volunteer work. One day, with a sincere intention to help, I suggested to Shifu that we should halve the number of volunteers for the center’s operations, because many of them made the work more complicated and less efficient. To my surprise, Shifu sternly replied, “This is a temple, NOT a business enterprise! We cannot turn anyone down. Instead, we need to try our best to help everyone grow here.” I kept silent at the time, wondering, “Wouldn’t it be more responsible to spend sangha’s and the volunteers’ time and money in more efficient way?” In this competitive world, we are trained to multitask and to value efficiency; that’s how we survive.
Nevertheless, I kept Shifu’s words in mind while I tried to understand what they really meant. I was fortunate to be able to spend many years watching how Shifu handled people and issues—including me and my own issues. My conclusion is that a Chan practitioner must practice the Bodhisattva vows in order to have the power to change one’s mindset in an unsatisfactory situation into a more beneficial attitude toward others, instead of complaining about the environment. Once we change our mindset, we change the way we perceive the world and the people around us, and somehow everything eventually gets better. Trying to do things faster or trying to save money may not be beneficial for the situation, especially for a religious group.
Now, when people complain to me about some of our hard-to-handle volunteers and suggest that we don’t let them come again, I always return to Shifu’s words: “This is a temple, NOT a business enterprise! We need to help everyone who comes here to grow.” Yet, I have to admit that, once in a while, I still get annoyed with the behavior of some of our volunteers, but I am getting better and better, and sometimes I really appreciate their presence so that I have many opportunities to practice my Bodhisattva Vows.